“I just can’t imagine …”
It’s a phrase Amanda Panell has heard many times over the past year. The words are well-intentioned, meant to ease the pain of losing of her 20-year-old son to suicide. But while the words provide some comfort, they always fall short. Hayden Kyle won’t come home again.
But he won’t be forgotten, either. On Feb. 16, two days before the one-year anniversary of Hayden’s passing, Panell attended a ceremony at Peninsula Outpatient Center on Dowell Springs Boulevard where a pair of benches she donated were placed in his honor and dedicated to his memory.
“Hayden enjoyed his time in Peer Support at Peninsula, and he was very passionate about mental health, about teen mental health in particular, and he gave a lot of his time to that cause,” said
Panell who has since accepted the role of vice-chair of the Patient and Family Advisory Council for Peninsula. “So the benches seemed like a really good fit.”
The benches not only provide a place for Peninsula outpatient clients to sit while they wait for public transportation, but also serve as a tangible reminder of the young man who lost his five-year struggle with depression. He was one of 948 Tennesseans to take their life in 2016.
Nationally, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in the 15 to 34 age group in 2015. Last year in Tennessee, it was the third-leading cause of death between 15 and 24. Every 9.2 hours one person dies by suicide in the state.
At the least, the figures are eye-opening. But when those numbers hit home as they did for Amanda Panell, they are devastating. Why would anyone choose to take their own life? Desperate to understand, she began searching for answers. “I just really wanted to understand because I have never felt suicidal and it was just so unfathomable to me,” said Panell, who immersed herself in suicide research after his death.
“What would cause someone with everything going for him to make this decision? I found out pretty quickly that depression was the second-leading cause of death for people in his age group,
and I was astounded because nobody had ever told me that. I never knew anyone who had taken their own life, so I was amazed at how frequently it happens.”
Hayden Kyle was a 6-foot-5-inch tall, 240-pound bundle of good looks and smarts with a heart filled with compassion for the less fortunate. “He was just a joy growing up – very, very bright, very sweet. Honestly, gave me no issues, no problems,” said Panell. “He was a happy and content child for a long, long time.”
But around age 16, Hayden no longer seemed to be himself. “It was hard to figure out what were typical teenage issues and things like that, versus what was very serious depression,” said Panell.
“But we’re very open as a family and so we immediately we tried to address the issues head-on because we noticed the change in him.”
However, it was not until he turned 17 and had his last visit to his pediatrician that Panell learned just how serious Hayden’s condition was.
“I am sitting there in the room and the nurse is doing the routine mental health screening and asking Hayden questions,” she said. “I’ll never forget that one of the questions was, ‘Have you ever thought about hurting yourself?’ and he said, ‘Yes, I think about it all the time.’ I was completely floored. That was the very first indication to me. I had never heard that. He had never told me. It was really scary because I had never heard him talk about that.”
The doctor took Hayden’s reply seriously and referred him to a therapist. “The therapist, after several visits, told us that he really felt like there was more going on than just talking would be able to work out,” Panell said. “He thought Hayden was very depressed, may need medication, and felt he should see a psychiatrist too.”
Armed with that support, it appeared things were back on track as Hayden graduated in the top five percent of his class at Bearden High School. A 30 on his ACT had earned him a scholarship to the University of Tennessee where he enrolled to study computer science.
By all accounts, his future looked bright – bright to everyone, that is, except Hayden who was still on medication and in talk therapy for major depressive disorder.
In September 2013, Hayden ingested a large amount of acetaminophen in what would be his first of three suicide attempts. Realizing what he’d done, he went to the emergency department at Parkwest Medical Center where he had his stomach pumped.
After spending several days in a mental health center, he was released with a treatment plan and a schedule of counseling sessions. Although he returned to classes at UT, Panell said, “After that point, school was a slow, gradual decline for him.”
A second suicide attempt came in 2015 when Hayden pointed a spray-painted toy gun at two Knoxville police officers and begged them to shoot him. Instead, they took him to Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center where he was stabilized before being transferred to Peninsula Hospital for several days. He later went to The Lighthouse, Peninsula’s Outpatient Clinic for counseling and became active in its “Peer Support Group” outings.
Despite Hayden’s willingness and collaboration with all forms of professionals, treatment options and support networks, Panell saw him slipping further away. “I could really tell at this point that he felt hopeless and we knew we had to do something drastic,” said Panell.
That “something drastic” was a “fresh start” to which Hayden readily agreed. He transferred to Cleveland State Community College and moved in with his maternal grandmother and her husband. He landed a job, was working and going to school. He also became active in a college student group at North Cleveland Church of God, all while continuing his therapy and medication.
On Feb. 16, 2016, he returned to Knoxville for his monthly psychiatric appointment. His mother accompanied him, and listened as the doctor asked what percentage of time he felt depressed.
His answer? 80 percent. “Are you suicidal?” the doctor asked. “Nope, not suicidal,” Hayden replied.
Two days later, back at his grandparents’ home in Cleveland, a seemingly happy Hayden met a friend for breakfast. On the way home, he stopped at a gun store and purchased a rifle. Minutes after arriving home, he logged into his Facebook account and posted a status update his mother said was “essentially a suicide note.” Shortly afterwards, Hayden Kyle instantly ended his life with a tug of the trigger.
“I really felt like he was getting a fresh start,” Panell said as she wiped away tears. “I think the scariest part of this whole situation was that we always truly believed that he would get better.
It never crossed my mind that he would not survive this. I always felt that it was just a matter of time. I just could not see a world in which we did everything – medication, inpatient and outpatient treatment, psychiatry, therapists, school transfers … I just could not see a world where all of that would not be enough to help him.”
“One of the most difficult realities of working with clients who have depression is losing one to suicide. It is similar to losing a loved one to cancer. The client, family and professionals are all invested, the best treatments are provided, and there can be periods of remission, but the cancer prevails. Sadly, I have worked with clients and their families to treat depression, and the majority improve, but sometimes, despite all efforts, the depression is stronger,” said Jo Willey, LMSW, Peninsula Intensive Outpatient Program therapist.
“However, with continued research and awareness among professional, clients and family members, our collaborative efforts will one day reap the rewards for clients so that suicide will not be the outcome. Hayden and his family are outstanding examples of how one’s own difficulties can help others still struggling with mental health issues by raising awareness, and decreasing stigma,” she added.
“After he died, I had people come to me and say, ‘I’ve felt this way. I know how Hayden felt. He didn’t want to hurt you. The pain just had to stop. He just couldn’t live one more day,’” said
Panell between sobs. “I really want to encourage that conversation because I think the more we talk about it and understand how it happens, then we can be a little more empathetic and help each other. There is no shame about the way Hayden died. We mourn him just as we would if cancer had killed him – depression killed him. If by talking about this we can prevent this from happening to one other family, it would be worth it.”